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Why You'll Drive An SUV In The Future (Even If You Don't Want One)
The everyday impression of the SUV is changing. In fact, we believe the entire genre of the SUV is morphing right in front of our eyes. Where big, truck-based SUVs drove America's insatiable appetite for the go-anywhere vehicles some 15 years ago (the Ford Explorer sold 445,000 units in the year 2000, the so-called peak of the SUV boom -- even more than Toyota sells of the Camry per today), today the story is much different. Big 'ole Hummers will soon be unavailable (the brand was killed by GM earlier this year and will wind down in 2010), but the image of the SUV as a gas-guzzling, insensitive vehicle still looms large.That really shouldn't be the case, especially given the way the SUV will change in the near future. The new-age SUV, which some might even call the crossover, will lure new buyers.
Tomorrow's SUVs won't drive like trucks. In fact, many don't drive like SUVs today. The reason? The old way to make an SUV was simple but slightly agrarian: based it on a rugged, truck platform. While some still continue that trend (and some hard-core towing requires strength of that type), such as the 2011 Toyota 4Runner, others have moved to car-based platforms that still manage to give that rough-and-tumble look. The SUVs with car-based platforms are commonly known as crossovers.
The classic example of a SUV that's changing its ways is the Ford Explorer. The popular model in the 1990s and early 2000s lost ground to smaller, softer rides as many consumers realized they didn't need all that utility. The next-generation Explorer, debuting as a 2011 model, is ditching its truck-based roots. Like popular "softroaders"of the modern day, the next Explorer will be a large crossover, utilizing a car-based platform.
When fuel was cheaper than milk, fuel economy numbers "didn't really matter." We place that sweeping generalization in quotes because even back in the Y2K days there were concerns over usage and costs (both real, out-of-pocket costs as well as environmental ones). But if you looked at the profile of the buyer of the first and second generations of SUVs, those buyers were not purchasing their Dodge Durangos on utility needs. They were image purchases.
Two things happened over the last three years that have significantly changed that. The prices of fuel grew to the point where the casual SUV buyer (in other words, the person who really didn't "need" it) suddenly started wondering if that vehicle made sense. Downstream from that, the actual of the image of the large SUV became a concern.But today? Fuel economy for some crossovers actually beats some family sedans. Take, for example, the Chevy Equinox. It gets up to 32 mpg on the highway, good for 600 miles from one tank of fuel. That is the kind of economy that will make the fuel argument moot (until, of course, sedans suddenly start achieving 50 mpg and skew our perspectives).
One of the things that makes an SUV loved by many is the same thing that creates hassles for others: the sheer size of, say, a Chevrolet Suburban, creates unforeseen issues for drivers. Shorter drivers complain about visibility in the front and rear, while inexperienced drivers have issues parking the behemoths. Through the use of technology, some of these problems will be minimized.
The back-up camera is now so widely found in the luxury SUV market that we can't remember a vehicle over $30,000 that didn't have one. Even some entry-level models -- such as the Chevy Equinox -- offer them, giving drivers an extra set of eyes when backing up. Parking distance alerts -- found in the front and rear bumpers -- add and extra set of ears by giving the driver a warning when she's too close to another vehicle (or a pole).
If 4- and all-wheel-drive systems seem like the ultimate in road-handling security, think again. Contrarians (and, for the most part, we join them) point out that the ability to drive all four wheels adds extra weight, even though the actual need for four-wheeled power is scarce. Hardcore offroaders need it, mind you, but they often prefer more robust four-wheel-drive systems for low-speed rock crawling. The suburban dad who's driving a car with all four wheels powered at the same time is really wasting energy (and gas).
A new way of thinking points to electronic stability control, combined with anti-lock brake systems and traction control, to give most drivers the extra security they need if they suddenly find themselves losing traction. While all-wheel-drive has been beaten into our heads as a "must have," the reality is that stability control systems do a great job for the average driver. Removing all-wheel-drive from the SUV might seem like sacrilege, but we're confident that ESC will be a tremendous value for the average Joe or Jane. ESC will be mandatory on all cars sold in the U.S. in the year 2012, too.
If you think the term SUV is only reserved for big cars like the Chevy Suburban, Ford Expedition or Toyota Land Cruiser, think again. The term "sport utility vehicle," is a bit of a mushy term to begin with (really, a Chevy Corvette has a whole lot of sport and even a good amount of utility when you consider its massive rear loading area), so we'll continue to test how people define it. One of the smallest cars on U.S. roads, the Suzuki SX4, is actually something of a SUV and crossover all at once. Certain trims feature all-wheel-drive, while all models have ESC. It's small, but sporty. It looks like a car, but has the ruggedness of a go-anywhere vehicle (with the utility of, perhaps, we could say is "go-places-other-cars-can't").Pretty soon it's going to be hard to define where an SUV ends and anything else starts. Somewhere in that transition will be our automotive future.
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